Things began a couple of years ago when Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore was assigned to students in a 12th-grade IB class in New Gloucester, Maine. Amy Arata, at the time a parent of the student in the class but now a state representative from the area, picked up the book to read with her son. She found the novel, which is a modern-day classic listed on the International Baccalaureate approved list of readings for students in the program, to be obscene. She met with the teacher to state her concerns about the content of the book and the teacher agreed to provide alternative option to all students and their parents: (a) continue with the Murakami book or (b) read another book the teacher selected that met the same thematic objectives of the instructional unit. A number of students chose the alternative novel, but most continued with the Murakami text, and this appeared to resolve the complaint around this book.
But this January, things heated up again as Arata introduced a bill in the Maine House that would “revise a state law governing the dissemination of obscene material to minors to remove an exception for educational purposes that allows public schools to use obscene matter.” Note that, according to the Sun Journal:
Maine law defines obscene materials as items that appeal “to the prurient interest” in the opinion of average people applying contemporary community standards “with respect to what is suitable material for minors, considered as a whole.”
Obscene material “‘lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” . . . and “depicts or describes, in a patently offensive manner, ultimate sexual acts, excretory functions, masturbation or lewd exhibition of the genitals.”
The obscenity law doesn’t apply to noncommercial distribution or exhibition “for purely educational purposes by any library, art gallery, museum, public school, private school or institution of higher learning, nor to any commercial distribution or exhibition by any art gallery or museum.”
Arata argued that her bill was not about book banning but about giving students age-appropriate materials— to editorialize, materials that she, not educators, would find to be appropriate.
The Maine Council for English Language Arts was in the forefront of those organizations that testified against the bill in public hearings. MCELA board member Claudette Brassil spoke on behalf of the MCELA board in her statement to the committee, saying much, including:
As a long-time teacher, I am not insensitive to the importance of making informed, well-considered, and wise choices about the texts students encounter in schools. Literature may simply entertain, but literature selected for the purpose of education is chosen for literary merit, which includes the quality of the written expression and the subject matter and themes that may challenge and perplex the reader’s feelings and thinking. Literature portrays complex human situations that confront the reader’s perceptions and assumptions. Literature provides a window into the experiences of others that can be thoughtfully addressed in well-guided classroom discussions.
In the 21st century, given the broad access to images and words via the Internet and social media, today’s students are becoming active and engaged members of our society at much younger ages than in the past. Young people today are aware of cultural and political circumstances that impact their peers and are more apt to become engaged in making change happen in regards to social justice issues. They have the opportunity to share and engage with each other in order to participate in society with maturity and compassion. To me, it seems imperative that the classroom be a guided space where students can wrestle with the varied characters, circumstances, and conflicts presented through literature. An important aspect of literary study is to consider the gray areas and to recognize and appreciate that life is full of ambiguity. This process of wrestling with complexity is empowering as students engage in broadening their understandings of human experience.
Public schools respect parental commentary and rights, and will gladly substitute texts that parents are concerned about. Removing public schools from the exception to the obscenity rule opens the door to any individual, faith-based group or special interest group making the argument that a text is obscene. Historically, The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird have been called “obscene.” Under the proposed change to LD 94 teachers who introduced these texts to a classroom could be charged with distributing obscene material. And although the intent is not to remove such classics from classrooms, the change in wording would make it possible for new challenges to be brought forward.
This issue came from a concerned parent who felt Kafka on the Shore, a book with strong adult themes, was an obscene book, and while she may feel it is obscene and not suitable for her child, she should not be able to remove public schools from the exception to the obscenity law. This action could bar teachers from introducing books that are considered classics, books that provide social commentary and challenging subject matter for their students. It would greatly inhibit the educational process and undermine teacher judgment. School districts have developed policies and procedures guiding parental and student complaints regarding classroom materials and usually these issues are satisfactorily concluded on an individual basis through candid and respectful dialogue.
This issue is not merely about a problem with a particular book; if the law changes it becomes about making the distribution of “obscene” material to public school students a criminal offense. The problem is that what is obscene to one person or group may be judged to have artistic or social merit to another. Criminalization of literary choices is a detriment to academic freedom. As in the past, contemporary community standards continue to evolve and are influenced by many forces.
MCELA is an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English, which has established policy statements on students’ right to read and meeting obscenity challenges on reading materials. Both of these statements are attached. In regards to LD 94, the book in question is currently on the International Baccalaureate list of approved books. The International Baccalaureate, a highly respected program, was established in 1968 in Geneva, Switzerland, and has spread across the world, offering a consistently challenging college preparation program. IB’s mission statement reads: “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Similarly, the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses are intended to provide college level preparation in high school. Additionally, you might consider the complications that would occur with this law change on college credit courses now offered in high schools. The students in those classes are considered to be attending college while in high school.
Claudette also gave a media interview. See 1:17 on the video.
To be sure, as Claudette points out, novels selected for use in high school classrooms might contain graphic and troubling scenes, but those scenes are neither the whole text nor the reason the text was thoughtfully selected by educators for use in the classroom. NCTE’s letters in defense of texts often feature the following language that sums up much of the Council’s positions on intellectual freedom—you may feel free to quote and cite this language and use it, should a challenge to an aspect of a text you’re teaching arise:
“It is clear that the language and the situations in this work, as in any text under study, must be seen in the context of the entire work. The ethical and literary value of a work is distorted if one focuses only on particular words, passages, or segments. An author’s broad moral vision, total treatment of theme, and commitment to realistic portrayal of characters and dialogue are ignored when protesters focus only on aspects that are offensive to them. Unfortunately, there is shock value in isolating and listing selected passages from a book; but this does not reveal anything about the fundamental message or theme in a work and it does not provide insight into its teachability or its literary quality.
In NCTE’s experiences with school curricula, we have found that there are few instructional materials that do not include something that is offensive to someone. If literary works that are duly selected by English teaching professionals are removed because the works offend particular individuals or groups, there will soon be little or no literature left to teach in our schools. Further, it would be wrong to assume that the disturbing scenes, profane language, negative events, etc., portrayed in a work are being endorsed by the author, the teacher, or the school. In fact, classroom study provides a fertile ground for students to interpret surface aspects of literature and to exercise critical thinking as they discuss the characters and issues in a work.”
Arata’s bill was moved to committee and last Friday, NCTE joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and others in a letter to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of the Maine Legislature strongly encouraging them not to pass the bill forward. There was good news on Monday when the committee sent the legislature a recommendation to vote against LD 94.
This is not over, however. Arata “plans to draft a new bill requiring teachers get ‘informed consent’ from a parent or guardian and the student before distributing obscene material, but removing the criminal aspect.” The sort of “informed consent” she recommends is a notion that flies in the face of the NCTE Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books She will have the opportunity to introduce an after-deadline bill yet during this legislative session. And, like a similar bill in Virginia that bounced around for five years from the state board of education to the legislature and back, Maine is not likely finished with Arata’s bill.
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